Carly Stephens aims to be her students’ Dr. Solie and Dr. Stone.
During her engineering studies at Oklahoma State University, she was convinced, on many occasions, the rigorous coursework was too much for her. Maybe she wasn’t smart enough, she thought. Maybe she wasn’t meant for engineering.
Her mentors, Dr. John Solie and Dr. Marvin Stone, patiently listened, empathized and then firmly encouraged her: You can do this. You’re going to make it. We believe in you.
That, Stephens said, made all the difference.
And that’s why she teaches.
“Society pushes us to do more and be more … to the point we think we’re not good enough,” she said. “I had somebody there to tell me I was good enough when I thought otherwise.”
Stephens, 39, grew up on an Oklahoma ranch. Her mother was a high school English teacher whose classroom was a safe haven for Stephens, who, for many reasons, became a target for taunts. During a college tour, she grew intrigued by agricultural engineering – and the thought of easing the burden on her father’s overworked body.
That led her to study agricultural engineering – with heavy doses of math and science – at her dad’s alma mater. As a girl, she was in the minority in classes; sometimes she was the only female.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “It was challenging. Math and physics didn’t come easy. I wanted to challenge myself. I struggled, but I made it.”
Determined to make the same sort of difference as her two professors who built her up when she was down, she has passed on job offers from a virtual who’s who – NRCS, Lockheed Martin, NASA – to teach. She, however, grimaces at the mention of such things.
“You don’t brag,” Stephens said flatly. “What you brag about are the most positive things about others that help them. How do you help others? How do you help the world? That’s where happiness comes from.”
Stephens had been teaching at Central High School for a year when the physics job opened in 2009.
“I said, ‘Bingo. That’s me. I need that job,’” she said.
Teaching “is a challenge every day,” she added. “And it’s so multi-faceted, if you do it the right way. I’m a cheerleader, a supporter, a mentor, an educator. That’s what turns me on about teaching.”
Stephens is fulfilling a personal mission to guide students to study engineering and science in college by teaching an Advanced Placement/dual-credit class affiliated with Angelo State University, which boasts of one of the nation’s top physics programs.
Stephens is now aiming to earn a Ph.D. so she can someday help ensure that college students who major in science, technology, engineering or math complete their studies and earn their degrees – much as her two professors did for her.
She encountered Dr. Solie recently at the funeral of Dr. Stone and his wife.
“Solie said, ‘I always knew you would change the world,’” she recalled.
“Yeah, I teach high school. I make a difference.”